If a friend’s relationship became abusive, 58 percent of college students say they are not sure what they should do to help, according to a new study on college dating violence.
At the same time, 43 percent of the women surveyed who date said they had experienced violence and abuse from a partner — and 60 percent of them said that nobody had stepped up to help.
The survey was conducted last fall by research firm Knowledge Networks, which interviewed 330 female and 178 male students from four-year universities across the country about their dating experiences and definitions of abuse.
The findings echo what advocates say they have seen happen too many times: A woman is being emotionally, sexually or physically abused; several people see the abuse or signs of it, but no one does anything for fear of making the situation worse or upsetting those involved.
Part of the problem is that it’s difficult for teens and young adults to identify dating abuse, which can range from physical violence to verbal bullying to obsessive calling, texting or e-mailing dozens of times a day. Fifty-seven percent of the surveyed students said it’s “very or somewhat difficult” to recognize abuse.
“It’s hard to know what to look for,” said Jane Randel, senior vice president for corporate communications at Liz Claiborne Inc., which commissioned the survey. In talking with teens and college students who have dealt with dating violence, Randel said, “they all knew something was wrong, but they didn’t know what to call it.”
The company has formulated a free high school curriculum through its Love is Not Abuse initiative. Just as students are educated on the dangers of drinking and drug use, Randel said, they should be better prepared for relationships. They created a similar curriculum for college students last year after the brutal beating death of University of Virginia lacrosse player Yeardley Love. Her ex-boyfriend, George Huguely, has been charged with first-degree murder.
Huguely, who also played lacrosse, had a reputation for partying hard and becoming violent. At the time of Love’s death, several sources said Huguely had abused her before but that no one reported it to school officials. At a candlelight vigil in May 2010, then-college president John T. Casteen III urged students to learn from the tragedy.
“If you fear for yourself or for others any form of violence, act,” he said. “Don’t hear a scream, don't watch abuse, don't hear stories of abuse from your friends — and keep quiet. Speak out. Find me; I will go with you to the police.”
Violence and abuse that arise during a relationship are usually labeled as “domestic,” a term that college students often associate with marriages and long-term relationships, not dating or hooking up. And since there are only a few dating violence programs aimed specifically at teens or college students, many go without the help they need.
“They won’t go to a domestic violence center. They don’t think it’s for them,” said Juley Fulcher, director of policy programs at Break the Cycle, which focuses on educating teens about dating violence.
Today’s college students face potential dating abuse that didn’t exist a generation ago. Cell phones, e-mail, Facebook and instant messaging have made it easier for abusers to track and harass their victims. The study refers to this as “digital dating abuse” and provides examples: calling or texting more than 50 times a day, or threatening to share embarrassing photos or videos.
The survey found that one in three dating college students had shared e-mail, computer, cellphone or social network passwords with a significant other.
Just like other forms of dating abuse, it can be difficult for students to discern when digital communication becomes unhealthy: Is he calling and texting so much because he cares — or because he is controlling? Is it normal for him to so closely monitor your Facebook friend adds? Why is he scrolling through your inbox?
Love is Not Abuse created a free iPhone application that simulates digital dating abuse so parents can better understand it. Without reading the instructions, I downloaded the app on my phone while waiting for an interview, logged my e-mail address and cellphone number, and started the simulation.
In the next few minutes, my phone would not stop ringing. The pre-recorded actor on the other end asked what I was doing and told me to call back. He left voice mails, sent an e-mail and texted: “Hey! Just wanted 2 check up on u because u never called me back. Let me no what ur doing when u get a sec.”
Then he noticed a new Facebook friend named “Mark,” wanted to know who this guy was and demanded that I de-friend him. The phone calls kept coming, and then another text: “Why haven’t you deleted that guy? Do I need 2 friend him myself and let him know ur my gf?. Delete him as a friend or i’ll do it 4 you.”
The whole experience was a bit unnerving. Randel said several people have described it as “creepy.” But that’s the point.
“It’s a matter of having kids understand that it’s okay to have things that are private... It’s okay to say no, to not be so quick to share passwords,” she said. “If it feels bad, then it really is bad.”
(For more information, visit the Love is Not Abuse web site. And if you need help, call the 24-hour National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline at 1-866-331-9474 or 1-866-331-8453 TTY.)